Building a High-Performing School System

Schools around the country and across my home state of Maryland are grappling with economic and social inequality and the ever-greater educational challenges that stem from those issues. As educators, we talk about “serving all students” and that “all” truly means all, but our education system has not lived up to that equity agenda.

While we have some terrific schools in Maryland, we also have some of the most challenged schools you will find anywhere. Maryland’s student achievement is firmly in the middle of the pack nationally—we are 29th in fourth-grade mathematics and 26th in fourth-grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Maryland was the only state that declined in both reading and math in the fourth and eighth grades from 2013 to 2015. If we broaden our lens, U.S. students are middle to well below average in all subject areas, according to the latest Program for International Student Assessment results.

Hopefully, what is described in this article will be of significant, practical value—not just to principals in Maryland, but to those in every state who face similar challenges. We must do better. We must close our growing achievement and opportunity gaps and live up to the claim that we embrace an equity agenda.

In order to help Maryland schools do better, Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly established the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (also known as the Kirwan Commission) in 2016. The commission was tasked with making recommendations to close the significant gap between Maryland’s preK–12 education system and the world’s top-performing systems. In undertaking this rigorous research and public engagement effort, the 25-member panel of elected officials, business leaders, and education stakeholders partnered with the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) to compare Maryland’s policies, practices, and outcomes to those of the best education systems in the world and others in the United States.

NCEE drew from 30 years of international education research to conduct a detailed “gap analysis” across their “9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System,” a distillation of their research comparing how the world’s top performers organize and implement policies and practices in their school systems. Using this gap analysis and expert testimony across various policy areas, the commission identified its policy recommendations (items highlighted in bold throughout the story).

Kirwan Commission

The work of the Kirwan Commission is absolutely vital to me as a principal in Prince George’s County. I have witnessed the challenges for my staff and students during the eight years that I have been a school leader here in Beltsville, MD. I have watched the changing demographics of my community, which is rapidly growing and ushering in more and more diversity, bringing in school-age children with very diverse needs.

Since 2002, the percentage of students in Maryland schools eligible for free and reduced-price meals has doubled—from 22 percent to 44 percent. Currently, nearly six in 10 schools in the state have 40 percent or more of their students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.

Meanwhile, Maryland spends 5 percent less on schools serving poor students than on schools serving wealthy communities, according to the commission’s gap analysis, whereas states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire all spend more on low-income districts than wealthier districts. This cannot continue.

Children are coming to school with adverse childhood experiences that impact their ability to learn. They have often read fewer books, have less-developed vocabularies, and have participated in fewer enrichment experiences than their more affluent peers. Their parents likely have less education and more instances of drug and tobacco use in the home. Most children living in poverty attend schools where their teachers are less prepared to deal with their wide array of needs.

Diverse Linguistic Needs

An additional factor facing many schools today is the influx of students with diverse linguistic needs. These students are placed in English immersion programs within schools not adequately prepared to support them. We need to provide sufficient support and professional development opportunities for school staff in order to meet these added needs.

The Kirwan Commission has called for significantly more support for at-risk students, with an increase in the special education weight and a new weight for schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty.

The commission further recommended increasing wraparound services for at-risk students and families (such as support for students and families who are continuously exposed to trauma in their social and physical environments or help with poor nutrition and a lack of preventive health care). Such changes would help address the reality that children living in poverty come to school with a whole different set of issues than their peers.

Additional funds can also help to provide the students with opportunities to interact with enriching academic and cultural content, programs, and materials that they may not have access to regularly.

Inequity starts as early as preschool. As principal of an elementary school, I see too many first-year students who are behind, unprepared for learning at the same level as their classmates. While Maryland has made progress in expanding access to high-quality early childhood education, we do not offer universal education for 4-year-olds, as 10 other states do. The Kirwan Commission would change that.

All 4-year-olds regardless of income or special education needs—and low-income 3-year-olds—would have an opportunity to enroll in a full-day program provided by either public agencies or private providers of high-quality preschool.

Teachers in Maryland, including early childhood educators, have not been provided the support and growth opportunities they deserve as professionals. Salaries for teachers in the state are 40 percent lower than those of professions with comparable education levels, such as accountants and nurses. There is a dire need for quality and diverse teachers and school leaders, yet interest in teaching as a profession at Maryland universities is in sharp decline. From where I stand, it is not hard to understand why that is. Truly understanding the life of a teacher is difficult for many. Teachers serve as educators, nurses, parental figures, data managers, friends, advocates, and many other roles. They are highly educated and starkly underpaid.

A teacher’s work is not an eight-hour-a-day job. They spend countless hours grading papers, planning lessons, researching best practices, and creating opportunities for their students to reach grade-level expectations. Although the work is overwhelming at times, a big issue is that teachers are not adequately compensated for their time, energy, and effort. Many teachers have to take on second jobs to supplement their income. To that end, they spend their own money to make sure they are providing their students the best educational experiences possible. Although teaching can be a very rewarding career, the current state of the profession in Maryland often makes it something less than that.

Raising Teacher Salaries

To raise the status of the teaching profession, the commission has recommended raising teacher salaries to that of people in comparable professions, creating incentives for strong high school students to choose a career in teaching. Such a move would also increase efforts to recruit a more diverse teacher workforce and raise licensure standards for new and advanced educators. Building a career ladder for teachers and principals—a system to reward teachers and leader expertise, as well as their ability to mentor others and work collaboratively to improve teaching and learning as the commission has recommended—would not only raise the status of teaching, but would make a big impact on student learning at the same time.

With strong teachers and school leaders, we can better prepare all of our students to be college and career ready. The commission’s recommendation to create an early warning system enabling teachers to better identify students who are falling behind and to modify the state’s college and career readiness policy so that most students are on track to graduate by the end of the 10th grade would mean more opportunities for meaningful career and technical education, as well as greater access to AP and IB classes for college-going students.

Building an education system in Maryland that delivers on the promise of a great education for all students will not happen overnight, but the reforms of the Kirwan Commission, which will be finalized in the coming months, offer an unequaled opportunity for the state to begin to live up to that promise.


Monique D. Lamar, EdD, is the principal of Calverton Elementary in Beltsville, MD.